How to Engage a TV Audience on Social Media — An Interview with CBS News’ Susan Zirinsky

"I don’t ever think, I’m doing that to increase my ratings," said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of the “48 Hours Mystery” broadcast on CBS News. In a recent interview with Social Times, Zirinsky explained how the television series about unsolved murder cases found a second home - and a new voice – on Facebook and Twitter.


“I don’t ever think I’m doing that to increase my ratings,” said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of the “48 Hours Mystery” broadcast on CBS News. “I’m doing social media because I want us to be part of the world’s discussion about law and justice.”  In a recent interview with Social Times, Zirinsky explained how the television series about unsolved murder cases found a second home – and a new voice – on Facebook and Twitter.

According to Reuters, between 25 percent and 75 percent of people who watch television are engaging with another screen at the same time. This might explain why it’s become increasingly common to turn on the television and see a subtitled message from networks to follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

But Zirinsky doesn’t feel that the television audience and the online audience are necessarily one and the same. “I do not really believe that social media pushes more viewers to the TV,” said Zirinsky. But “I do truly believe that there is a huge audience on the social networks…and that community is one that I want to be a part of.”

Zirinsky got her start in social media doing Web companion pieces for the CBS nuclear war drama “Jericho.” Unable to use any of the actors or clips from the show, Zirinsky grabbed all the secretaries in the office and shot interviews based on “Jericho’s” story line and themes.  After 22 episodes, the “webumentary” took off. “The series on the Web got more attention than the TV series,” Zirinsky remembers.

And for about four hours, the executive producer held the distinction of having coined the term “webumentary” on Wikipedia. (The entry was later corrected.)

After one season Zirinsky decided she wanted her own crime blog – “and not as a promotional tool for ‘48 Hours,’ “she said, “because we have a website. I wanted something else.”  With two people from her staff, some summer interns and a couple of pages she launched Crimesider, a blog covering the country’s top crimes with stories, videos and original reporting.  In August 2011, at the height of the Casey Anthony murder trial, Crimesider garnered 24 million page views and 4 million unique visitors.

By now Zirinsky could see that her audience online was a different animal. “You’d have to be an ostrich, if you’re in the media business, to not sense the ground opening and the social revolution bubbling up,” she explained.

Zirinsky decided to apply some of the lessons learned from her blog and Web series to“48 Hours Mystery.” With a handful of staffers, she threw up Facebook and Twitter pages and started engaging with viewers directly.  “We didn’t quite know how to do it,” Zirinsky admitted.  At times there were so many conversations happening at once that Facebook would shut them down. They brought in a social media expert, who didn’t work out, and another, who did. The staff started tag-teaming on both sites to cover multiple conversation threads.

Flash forward to the present day: “We’ve landed at the beach in Normandy, everybody’s dead and I’m taking over the island,” said Zirinsky. “So is now not an option if you’re on my staff.  This is part of your job.”

While the show is on the air, which is usually between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. eastern time, Zirinsky and her team will set up camp on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #48hours for the latter.

Each of the two platforms she uses has its advantages. “I’m a huge Twitter fan, and I really like it as a news asset,” said Zirinksy, but she finds that Facebook facilitates longer conversations because there is no character limit. “You can get to a deeper level,” she said.

The core team consists of producers, correspondents, and other members of the staff, who each field questions and make observations under separate avatars. On occasion, the friends and family members of the victims will also join the discussion.

This was the case with an episode called “Facebook Detectives.”  Lisa Stone, then 51, had been missing since June 2010. The police had believed that she was just taking some time off after a breakup with her partner, but her high school friends suspected foul play. Using Facebook to dig for clues, the women were able to gather enough evidence to convince the Dallas police that Lisa had been murdered.  When “48 Hours Mystery” aired the show about the case, Lisa’s friends participated in the discussion on Facebook.

And Zirinsky has learned that the Web audiences love to engage in dialogues. “Sometimes people will say, ‘How can you just sit there and report that the guy got off? He’s so guilty.’ And you know, you think, I’m a reporter covering the facts as they existed. For context and perspective, we’re doing this, this and this, but I didn’t make the judge decide, I didn’t make the jury decide. We’re reporters. We’re talking about things that are real.”

It raises the issue whether the dramas might be too real, and the victims too sensitive, to leave in the hands of anonymous users online.“We’re a world of strong opinions,” Zirinsky pointed out. “The Internet and the social media give people a way to express those opinions,” she added, but “those opinions exist whether social media exists or not.”

Overall, the online community is enthusiastic and thoughtful. Over the weekend, the show aired a double feature to make up for an episode that was postponed due to the NFL playoff game. “I am so happy to see that instead of football!Wahooooooooo:),” wrote one fan in response to the announcement.

That night the team covered a tragic scuba diving accident that landed a man in Caribbean jail for the murder of his wife. “Did David Swain get what he deserved?” wrote “48 Hours Mystery” on Facebook.

“Okay…he may have done it,” responded a viewer, “but there is not enough for me to say he is guilty without reasonable doubt.”

The “48 Hours” team often posts the interview cards from the show and other questions for the online community to think about and discuss while they watch.  In the middle of an episode about the Long Island Serial Killer, Zirinsky posted “one of the scarier cards,” she said, which read, “Do you think the serial killer is watching right now? Are you out there?” The killer didn’t respond, but according to Zirinsky, the station got several leads from other viewers, which they forwarded to the police.

“In a law and justice show,” said Zirinsky, “the use of social media as a way to engage an audience and just be interesting is also a way to maybe solve a case.”

In the fall of 2011 Zirinsky added Web videos on Facebook to enhance and augment the series.  But she clarified that the videos, called “takeaways,” should give a Web audience more than just leftover footage.  “It’s a slice of something to help with context and perspective,” she said, “something that gives you just a little edge in how we do the show.”

In one episode of “48 Hours,” investigators had pointed out that the murder weapon, which was a powerful gun, would likely have injured the killer because of the kickback.  The video that was posted separately on the Web showed a thin, young producer shooting the rifle to demonstrate. “She literally fell backwards,” Zirinsky recalled.

In the future, CBS might be exploring other platforms like Google+. “I don’t think as a media company we can limit ourselves to any one social dynamic,” said Zirinsky. “It’s kind of like rabbits: they’re really soft and I want to pet as many as I can.”

And when it comes to choosing a new platform, Zirinsky doesn’t overthink it. “I believe that in this arena, we live in a cacophony of competing media platforms,” she said. “It’s my job to kind of pick the right ones, but if you experiment and you fail, I haven’t lost any money, and maybe I’ve picked up a couple of viewers. So I just feel like it’s worth my while to invest in anything with potential.”

Image by valdis torms via Shutterstock